Seeing the Way Clear

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By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 2/16/2011
 In summer 2010, Anne Lynam Goddard visited Marigat and met Hillary and Helen
 In summer 2010, Anne Lynam Goddard visited Marigat and met Hillary and Helen.
 Hillary and Helen are mainstreamed into classes for students of all abilities.  
 Hillary and Helen are mainstreamed into classes for students of all abilities.

Hillary loves to play the trumpet, and he wants to be an artist. Helen wants to be a newscaster.

Will they? Maybe.

What if we add the fact that Hillary and Helen live in one of the poorest parts of Kenya, where 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line?

What if we add the fact that they are blind?

Hillary and Helen, both 15 years old, have been blind pretty much their whole lives. Hillary was born that way, and Helen lost her sight to illness at 4 months. In countries where extreme poverty reigns, children are the most vulnerable to its effects. When children in that situation live with a disability, their vulnerability is multiplied. Education could help them rise above their disability and achieve their potential despite their limitations. But in areas where schools are barely equipped to meet the needs of sighted children, education is usually out of reach for the blind.

But not for Hillary and Helen — and, for the past 22 years, for dozens like them.

In the late 1980s, ChildFund Kenya and its affiliate in the Marigat area of the Rift Valley, the Marigat Family Helper project, partnered with Sight Savers International so that vision-impaired children would have the same chance to reach their potential as sighted children do. The result would be an integrated school where both blind and sighted would share a mainstream learning environment.

First, ChildFund hired a community mobilizer to help sensitize the families in the area to the idea and to locate all the children with vision issues. Soon, construction began on the grounds of the existing Marigat primary school, to build a dormitory and a specialized resource center. The Marigat Integrated Primary School opened in 1989.

My classmates who are sighted sometimes are too busy to read for us, especially during study time when the teatchers are not there.  
 - Helen, grade 8 

Hillary, Helen and the rest of the 40-plus vision-impaired students are folded into the student body. Sighted students help the blind with reading during study time, and all learn together and interact as they enjoy routine school activities.

Gregarious Hillary enjoys welcoming visitors to the school. He is in fourth grade due to some extra challenges, but he is progressing well.

Helen, now in grade eight, has a whole list of things that make her happy at school: “interaction with other pupils, making friends, being able to learn, being taught by role models who are visually impaired teachers and learning to work for myself.”

The school employs government-trained special-needs teachers — some of them visually impaired. The resource center is a library for the children with visual challenges, where they can find braille texts and other appropriate materials. There is even an on-site transcriber, who is a staff member trained in braille support — generating braille materials and repairing braille typewriters.

Still, resources — both in the resource center and overall — are lean. “I do not access enough learning materials since they are few,” says Helen. “My classmates who are sighted sometimes are too busy to read for us, especially during study time when the teachers are not there.”

Even water, that most basic necessity, is often in short supply, forcing students to find it outside of the school. “It is also risky crossing the road while carrying water,” Helen says.

 Head school teacher Reuben Koima Kennei  
 Head school teacher Reuben Koima Kennei in his office.

Head teacher Reuben Koima Kenei says the school’s high enrollment — currently 1,278 students — has led to insufficient physical facilities like classrooms, toilets and dormitories. The low incomes in the area prevent many students from paying fees required for participating in certain valuable school activities.

But in the short year since he joined the faculty in early 2010, Kenei has found plenty of reasons to feel positive. “I am proud of the equal treatment given in terms of roles and responsibilities — for both the sighted and visually challenged teachers and pupils,” he says. His happiest moment so far was one day in January, a year after his arrival, when he received 35 letters inviting as many of last year’s eighth-graders to proceed to high school, and he saw one for a girl named Sherline, who is visually impaired.

Of course she wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. Next year, there’s every possibility that one of those letters will have Helen’s name on it.